Mbabane: The government of Eswatini has hired Vuma Reputation Management, a South African based Public Relations firm in a bid to position itself as a stable, peaceful investment destination-and one that could be a home to many businesses.
Daily Maverick reported on Friday that Prime Minister Ambrose Mandvulo Dlamini, Minister of Commerce, Industry and Trade Manqoba Khumalo and Minister of Finance Neal Rijkenberg held a Zoom briefing for foreign journalist on Thursday. Reports are to the effect that the briefing was facilitated by the South African-based reputation management company, which was hired to help improve the country’s image. Daily Maverick described the hiring of the PR firm as a rare event from a government that has not been in the habit of communicating much with international media in the past.
The country’s new approach of being a private sector-led economy and an export-driven one means it has to look good to investors, especially to help economic recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic. Eswatini has had a partial lockdown, and a two-month booze ban that started on July 1 and is now running into a third month. Khumalo, in his concluding remarks, pointed to the fact that all three men addressing the briefing are from private sector backgrounds, which could imply that they are more competent in creating an environment conducive for business than, say, career politicians.
Khumalo added that the bad ratings for personal freedoms and democracy Eswatini regularly gets from the likes of Freedom House do not really augur well with them because they come from environments where they were extremely competitive and wanted to be rated the best. “I believe His Majesty decided to put us in these roles to transform government and the country and to ensure that Eswatini is portrayed correctly at global level, and that we do the right things, so we are very committed to making the changes,” he said.
At the end of July the country had a major PR setback when outgoing United States Ambassador to Eswatini, Lisa Peterson, in a press briefing streamed on social media where she slammed the millions King Mswati III had spent on 11 customised Rolls-Royce limousines in 2019, and on overseas trips for the royal family. She asked why Americans were pouring millions of dollars of their tax money into aid for the king’s impoverished subjects while he and his family lived lavish lives.
When asked about it in the briefing, Minister Rijkenberg said he welcomed the opportunity to set things straight. Although he said there was freedom of speech in Eswatini and the ambassador was entitled to her opinion, he didn’t dispute her facts, only the perception that the timing of her remarks created that the spending happened during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Rijkenberg said Eswatini’s budgeting and finances were transparent, and it would be easy to check that the King did not use tax money to finance his spending. Rijkenberg added that Eswatini King, long before even colonialists came to Africa, has owned thousands of cattle, and obviously he has got wealth in his own right as a person and as a monarch, and if he decided to buy Rolls-Royces with that, obviously it is his own decision.
Khumalo said the people of the Kingdom of Eswatini love their monarchy and are proud of that, adding that the country is peaceful and has had 400 years of peace and stability as a kingdom. He blamed the bad publicity of Eswatini thus far on the fact that the country has not been telling her own story loudly enough.
“We want the world to know Eswatini is open for business. We really want the world to understand the Eswatini story from us because we have for a long while left that space unattended and what has happened is because nature doesn’t allow a vacuum, [other] people have defined us, but that definition is wrong. It is not who we are, it is not how we do business, it is not what is at the core and the centre of our culture.”
Just because Eswatini is different, does not mean it is deficient, he said.
Minister Khumalo is also set to preside over the tabling of a bill – the Computer Crime and Cybercrime Bill – that would make posting fake news that is damaging to the country a crime with fines up to R10-million or 10 years in prison.
Khumalo was quick to point out that this bill is actually intended to bring Eswatini online with the rest of the world, and it speaks to explicitly criminalising things like child pornography, cyber terrorism, identity-related crimes, cyberbullying and cyber stalking, extortion, website defacement, posting racist and xenophobic material, including inciting genocide and crimes against humanity, spamming, disclosure of confidential details during investigations, harassment, and violation of intellectual property rights. He said it offered “a bouquet of protections because we are now fully digitalising – as a country we want to make sure that the platform is also correct in terms of protections for end users.”
Khumalo was adamant that the bill was “not aimed at curtailing media freedoms but more on how we use globally benchmarked controls around the digital space in the country”.
Reports are to the effect that it is still not clear whether the country is committed to making the actual changes to attract investors or whether it’s only focused on changing the image.
“For us to change, it won’t happen overnight, but we are committed to changing the picture,” Khumalo said.
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